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Thank you for seeing me, your holiness, I know what a busy person you are after more than 1400 years of trying to clear your name, but  I hope you don’t mind me asking you a few questions.  The thing is, there’s a few things I just don’t quite get, and I wonder if you can help me. 

Sure t’ing. Oi’ll do what Oi can for you. And who knows, it might even help me a tad or two. 

Aw, thanks, your saintliness.  Now wait a minute, let me just find my note book.  And I’ve got a pen in here somewhere.  OK, here were are.  Now, what I don’t understand is, with you being such an important saint and all that and doing all those great things, is how you got away with it.  

Oi’m nod at all sure what you mean boi dat.   

No, no, I’m sorry, your sanctimoniousness. I didn’t mean to offend. I can be a bit clumsy at times.  So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I’ll start at the beginning.  You left your home in Ireland or was it called Scotland at that time?  It’s all very confusing.  Anyway, you left your home under a bit of a cloud if you don’t mind me saying so.  And I’m not just talking about the weather – though it can be a bit rough in The North Channel especially when your boat is just a basket covered in skin. Could you not fly, you being an angel and all that?  Or have I misrepresented your saintly powers?  Sorry, your beatitude, I’m going off track.  But it was awesome how you and twelve others crossed over the North Channel in what was little more than a bathtub covered in skin. it sounds like Bonnie Prince Charlie without a sail or a prayer, but I dare say you had lots of prayers. No, what I wanted to know is how you caused so much hell back in the home country that you had to get out.  After all, you were a Bishop and a grandson of Kings.  

Oi know, Oi know. But you do go on something chronic. De fact is d’ basterds had it in for me.  Oi guess dey were jealous.  But you know, I never really left.  Back den, it was the same country on eider side.  De islands to the west o’ Pictland were a kind of colony.  Dere were loads of us up dere.  Besides, Oi didn’t stay on Kintyre. Oi just planted me footsteps – for de tourists, don’t y’know.  Then Oi had a drink at de holy well and sailed off up de coast to Iona – where I couldn’t see de old country an’ get homesick   

But the indictment was you infringed copyright law.  Now why would you want to do that?.  And why was it such a serious offence they threatened to excommunicate you. 

Well, you need to understand; we never had xeroxes back den.  De bastards asked me to copy dis enormous document, covered in letters in all different colours, wid pictures all down de soide.   It took me de best part of haf a year in doese freezin’ cloisters.  Dey’d promised me a great fat fee, but when it was all done, dey didn’t give me a bean. Well, Oi was so pissed off, Oi pinched it – so Oi did.  Serves dem roit.  But how was Oi to know it would start a war.  It was moi uncle; he’s a gran’ fierce man.  An de O’Neills look after der own.  But den dat bastard King Diamairt, no more than a jumped up swoine herd, so he is, moirdered de Prince moi cousin, who was recovering from a sports injury.  An’ in moi own church, moind you. Anyway dey framed me; so Oi had to get out pretty damn quick.  But Oi was innocent, so Oi was.  Oi never did it, so help me God.  An’ didn’t yer man make me a saint just loik St Paddy before me, who, by de way, was also no angel eider?  Well, no one was.  It was a case of dog eat dog back den .  

But, you’re a holy man, your honour.  What are you doing meddling in wars and politics?  Not even Rowan Williams did that.  Shouldn’t you leave it to the military. 

Oi feel bad about all de people dat got killed. Dat’s why oi thought oi should go.  But de truth is de kings were hopeless, not quoit as bad as de British government is now, but hopeless, none the less.  Oi had to do something.  Besoides, God sent me a message.   

A message. 

Yes, dis whale came up to me in de boat an’ told me Oi would rescue a man from de fiersome Loch Ness Monster.  So Oi went up there, made the sign of the cross and your timorous beastie ran away. I reckoned Oi’d squared things up wid God.  

Ok, let’s put all that to one side, your graciousness. There’s something else that happened on Iona that bothers me,  

Oi know, it’s about all dose women and de cows on moi holy island of Iona, but God told me to banish dem. 

No, it wasn’t that.

Well, de frogs and the snakes, den.   

No, it wasn’t them either, though I don’t know how you managed to round them all up and get them off the island.    

God works in such mysterious ways; his wonders to behold! (holds up two fingers and makes the sign of the cross, him being such a holy man) 

That’s as maybe. But I was thinking about your best friend.

Aw, you’re meaning Oran the moron.  He was no friend of’ moine; he just did what I told him.  But he had a lovely wife – such a waste!   Anyway, what happened to Oran was’na moi fault.  Yer man had a hand in dat, too. God told me that he would not consecrate moi chapel until Oi’d buried a man aloive in de foundations.  And Oran volunteered, so he did.   

And so you used your grace to console his wife. 

Well (stroked his beard wistfully) you could put it loik dat, but wasn’t it the least Oi could do for a friend who had made the ultimate sacrifice?  

 But he was still alive when they dug him up. 

Yes, but he’d lost his moind, God rest his soul – blaspheming against me, the church and his God.  

So you killed him.

Oi had to.  Oi put a stake through his chest to drive out de devil.  But you know dat wasn’t truly me.  As a saint of the holy catholic church, Oi’m only the instrument of the Almighty.  But surely Oi’ve paid moi price by now.  Although I departed this mortal coil way back in 593, Oi’ve never entered dose holy gates to heaven. Oi coudn’t even foind them. An’ Oi’m still lookin’  

So you admit you committed homicide, but if it was God’s will,  why, being a saint and all,  are you not up on a cloud singing with the angels? Sounds like God’s still got it in for you.  

But Oi was innocent, Oi tell you.  All Oi did was do His will.  Oi’ve got letters to prove it, and dey’ve taken me ages to wroite. 

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IMG_5225Edensor Day has finally arrived.  Just two months ago, the residents of the bijou Derbyshire Village, where I live, emerged from hibernation and converted their gardens into a collective floral spectacle. Then, last Saturday, they opened them to the public, while on the green, all the accoutrements of a village fete and gala sprang up: stalls selling plants, bric-a-brac and books, vintage cars, a steel band, Morris Dancers, hog roast, raffle and barrel organ.  People paid £5 a ticket to enter and all funds were in the aid of this year’s charities: Dementia UK, Leukaemia and the never-ending Church Roof fund. 

Edensor appears in the Domesday Book as a small hamlet on the road from Matlock to Carver and Bakewell.  But after the big house was built in 1699, successive Dukes of Devonshire complained that the straggle of rude dwellings spoiled their view of the deer park, so in 1835, the 6th Duke and his general factotum, Joseph Paxton, demolished it and commissioned another village of the same name out of sight of his palace behind the Tumps.  According to social history, the Duke asked Paxton to obtain a selection of architect’s drawings. These included Italianate villas, Swiss chalets, gingerbread cottages and fortified houses with battlements and turrets. All the buildings were of a different style.  So in a confusion of indecision, His Grace proclaimed, ‘I’ll have one of each’.  And so it was: the dwellings of Edensor resemble a collection of film sets, but that contributes to the charm of the village. Nevertheless, Nikolaus Pevsner, the author of the compendious ‘Buildings of England’, was scathing about what he regarded as its inauthenticity. 

As a resident of 10 years, I am still regarded as an incomer, but in a gesture of solidarity to the community, I watered my flowers, fed the honeysuckle, and tidied the weeds from the front yard.   But I am no gardener. The biggest thing growing in my garden is the scaffolding they put up three months ago to replace my chimney that was in danger of blowing down. I am much better on biscuits and books that I ever was with plants and flowers.  So I erected two large tables outside under the scaffold, and filled them with some of my less cherished books, while on a separate table, I installed a Winchester flask of elderflower cordial and two cake stands of my own home made ricorelli biscuits.  I then made myself a cup of coffee and sat down and awaited the crowds. 

It is so poignant to sell my books, even for charity. They are like old friends. I can remember where I was when I first read them, where my mind travelled, what was important back then.  But my tiny cottage is groaning under the weight of novels, reference books on physiology, natural history, geology, environmental studies, medicine, psychoanalysis, biography and lots of poetry – though, if there’s one category I can’t get rid of, it’s the poetry books. 

It could not last. The long, hot spell of weather we had enjoyed from early May had to break some time. I had not long set up my stall when it started to rain.  I put both tables together under a large green parasol and rearranged my books where they might stay dry, then just as Lord Burlington, the scion of Chatsworth, drove through the village gate with his wife and young family, the rain stopped.  The ribbon was cut, posies exchanged  and Edensor Day was formally opened as, with a jingle of bells, a thump of the drum and img_5231.jpgthe bucolic strains of pipe and accordion, the Morris Dancers emerged in their black cloaks and breeches, multicoloured tassels, top hats with feathers and flowers, and faces painted in black, red and yellow like Red Indian medicine men. Back in the day on the borders between England and Wales, begging was unlawful, so destitute people disguised themselves and danced through the villages, extorting money by their frightening appearance.

From 11am until 4pm, a steady stream of people passed my stand and examined the books, though not all bought them.  Many said they already had a house full of books.  Others equivocated over the price, but I charged no more than £2 for most books, and all the money raised went to good causes.  The paradox is that had I charged more, people might have bought more; two pounds implies that they have no value.  I didn’t even have the heart to charge his Lordship more than £4 for the two art books he purchased, though his daughter politely requested a drink of cordial nervously holding out her 50p.  I didn’t sell as many biscuits as last year, probably because Tracey was selling cakes just next door, but despite the chilly weather, the Winchester of elderflower cordial was empty by the end of the day.  

At half past four, I had just started to pack up when, with exquisite timing and a loud rumble of thunder, heaven opened its sluices and cleared the streets and gardens.  It was a signal to join my neighbours in the courtyard for a beer and a laugh, and wait while the committee sat in conclave and counted the money.  The outcome was a record; over £12,000!

 

 

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‘Three points of contact at all times. And if anybody falls overboard, just throw them a ring and scream.  Don’t go running for’ad to get us because the chances are we won’t find them’.  Ex Royal Marine and RNLI, Jock was a health and safety man to his branded anorak and shiny boots. ‘None of you have got your life jackets on properly.  ‘If your crutch strap is too loose, the jacket will ride up around your neck and strangle you.’  This was suddenly serious.  

St Kilda is about 90 miles away from the Isle of Skye and the only way we could get there and back in the same day was in the GotoStKilda speed boat, a modern sea going capsule with a small afterdeck from where we could watch the birds, the whales and the dolphins.  

‘If people don’t come on time, they’ll get left behind’, scowled Jock. So on the stroke of 7 o’clock, Willie, the skipper, a stocky, shaven headed man, who had bought land to farm in Tennessee, fired up the engines and soon we were all heading west, racing across The Minch and through The Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic, Harris and Lewis receding into the mist behind us on a glassy sea.  A pod of dolphins came out to investigate, arcing above the reflective surface. The sun was bright on the sea, in contrast with the western horizon, which was a wide smudge of dark grey with the evanescent angular shapes of islands.  

Borarey is about 4 miles to the north and east of the main island of Hirta and includes the magnificent sea stacks, An Armin and Lee, home to the largest gannet colony in the North Atlantic.  We watched as, like large prehistoric seagulls with sulphur yellow heads and sharp pointed bills, they folded their wings and darted into the sea at 60 mph to spear the shoals of herring.  Gannets can live for up to 30 years, but after a while the accumulated impact of hitting the sea at 60mph causes them to go blind and dislocate their necks.  Returning with their catch, they are mobbed by Bonxies (Great Skuas), also known as pirate birds, which force them to disgorge their catch.  The people of St Kilda relied on nesting birds not only for their staple food, but also for the oil and feathers which they would trade.  The young men would scale the sea stacks late at night to catch the gannets.  It was dangerous work.  They would have to catch the sentry bird and wring its neck before they could harvest the other birds. 

Hirta, the main island, is formed from part of the rim of an extinct volcano and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders would let each other down on horsehair ropes to harvest the fulmar petrels that nested on the ledges. It was such dangerous work, but only two men were known to have died, when the anchor man at the top of the cliff lost concentration and did not take up the slack while his climbing partner missed his foothold, fell about forty feet and catapulted him 600 feet onto the rocks below.

We docked in the sheltered harbour of Village Bay, clambered into the rubber Zodiac and went ashore, where we were greeted by the resident archaeologist.  He was a shy young man with glasses and baggy jeans, who informed us that St Kilda had been occupied for 3000 years. The names of the islands, however, are derived from the Vikings, who built the black houses for people to live in and cleats (stone huts with a turf roof) to dry and store the feathers and the birds.  The St Kildans lived in their black houses up until the eighteenth century.  They burnt peat in a central hearth, but, as there was no chimney; the smoke hung just below the roof and deposited a thick layer of tar, which functioned as a disinfectant.  They also had their own form of central heating.  A cow or sheep occupied the same space, separated by a partition.  The dung was collected and stored together with human waste and refuse in a large heap inside the doorway and then spread over the floor.  The rotting refuse provided underfloor heating, but was very smelly.  

The St Kildans did everything together and met for morning ‘parliament’ in the village street to decide what they would do that day.  Survival was a full time job. The men collected the birds, built the houses and cleats, while the women tended the vegetables, plucked the birds and cooked the meals.  The community shared all the work and the harvest, but they sent feathers and fulmar oil to the landowner on the mainland in return for materials for their houses and any provisions, which they did not have on the island. 

People continued to live on St Kilda until 1930 when the combination of disease, emigration and poverty forced their evacuation.  The last person to have lived on St Kilda died just three years ago. An epidemic of smallpox killed off half the population in the 1870s, then flu took its toll in the 1920s.  Many children  died of infertile tetanus, probably caused by the habit of anointing the umbilical cord with dung or fulmar oil.  The newer houses, constructed in the 1880s, had tin roofs which let the rain in, but these were not an improvement: the tin roofs would blow off and the storms blew the windows in.  They may have been cleaner but they were not as warm. People suffered, became ill and increasing numbers of survivors took the opportunity to leave.  

On Hirta, we took the opportunity to explore the island alone.  We only had two hours to explore the island alone and the cloud was too low to go to the tops of the hills. I went up to the gap – the low point between two hills below the cloud base and ate my lunch while watching the fulmars glide along the side of the cliffs past their nesting sites.  Then I traversed across the heather and tried to get some photographs of the resident Bonxies, which were intent on dive bombing me.  The whoosh as one dived within inches of my head was alarming.  Down in the village, some Fulmars  nested in the turf on top of the cleats while St Kilda Wrens, greyer and much bigger than the wrens we see on the mainland, nested in the walls, sharing the nooks and crannies with starlings.

The time passed too quickly and I wished I had opted to camp there for the night, but as we left, Jock said he had an extra treat for us. He took us  to the place near where the puffins nested and saw thousands of them floating on the sea,  their clown like faces incongruous in their black habits.  Puffins dive for sand eels which dangle on hooks set on the inside of their comical beaks, but they are also victims of the skuas, who fly in and delicately grab the dangling sand eels.  

We could not dawdle; Jock and Willie were keen to get back, but Jock had an announcement.  ‘Now just go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell all your friends about ‘GotoStKilda’. We need to have a full boat every trip so we can put food on the table.’  At £236 a shot, this was hardly the same privation as the original settlers, but we said we would. 

A breeze had got up while we were on land and as the boat bucked and dived through the swells, we staggered to keep our three points or more in contact.  But that just added a certain frisson to what had been an amazing trip.  

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Crackaig is a sad place. It lies in a hanging valley above steep cliffs, just a mile from the sea in Northwest Mull and contains the ruins of 12 stone dwellings. The land around still shows the shallow undulations of the strips and furrows for cultivation. Two hundred years ago, the people of Crackaig subsisted by fishing, keeping cattle and growing barley and potatoes; they even ran an illicit whisky still in a cave by the shore, trading the whisky for piglets brought over on boats from Ireland. It was a hard life, only barely above subsistence level, but the potato blight brought them to the brink of starvation. Many died, the village was deserted and those that survived, emigrated to Canada. Only a few miles back along the coast is a village called Calgarrie, which gave its name to the city in Alberta.

Across the sound from Crackaig is the island of Ulva, the domicile of the Macquarie clan, the fierce red tartan fighters who fought the English throughout medieval times and at the Battle of Culloden. Two generations later, their descendants would join the British Army. Major General Lashlan Macquarie served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars and, as Governor General of New South Wales between 1810 to 1821, was instrumental in its development from a penal colony to a free settlement. Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean is named after him. As landlords of Ulva after the clearances, his family had fought for the population to remain as long as they paid their way by fishing and harvesting kelp, which provided soda ash for soap and glass manufacture. They even commissioned Thomas Telford to design a church for them. But, the market for kelp collapsed in the 1840s at around the same time as the blight destroyed the staple potato crop. The landlord dipped into his own pocket to send most of the 600 people who lived on the island to Canada. There are now just 16 people living on Ulva. The island is again up for sale. The price is £4.1 million, a snip for somebody with the money and imagination to seize an opportunity for tourism.

 

In the early 19th century about 40% of Scots lived in the Highlands and Islands. Now that figure is around 2 to 3%. The depopulation of the highlands by what has come to be known as the clearances has become part of Scottish identity; a tragic tale of exploitation and betrayal by avaricious landowners. The truth is more complex.

The Highlands and Islands avoided the enclosure and intensive farming that occurred in the south. Much of the land was poor and inaccessible and people lived in clans or tribes, who operated a system of mutual loyalty, called ‘duathches’, based on the allocation of land and controlled by the clan chieftain. In return for the land to live on, clansmen not only had to give over a proportion of their produce to the chieftain, they were also expected to join the local militia in any conflicts with neighbouring clans. The ‘clansmen’ were largely subsistence farmers, but their livelihood was increasingly threatened by sheep farming, which was less labour intensive and used more land. Some of the clans kept cattle, which were driven south for sale in the autumn.

Chieftains were autocratic rulers with little respect for the crown, but after King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they backed the Stuart cause to regain the monarchy. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s march south, which reached as far as Derby, was an enormous shock for the English. King George II was all ready to escape to the Netherlands, but Charlie’s highland army began to drift away back north and were eventually beaten by the English at the Battle of Culloden. Anxious to avoid another highland rebellion, the English redcoats under the notorious Duke of Cumberland pursued the highlanders into their own country, burning their villages and killing the many of the clansmen, as in the infamous Massacre of Glencoe. The clan system was disbanded. People were forbidden to wear the tartan or play the bagpipes.

After Culloden, clan chieftains and their tacksmen became major landowners; in essence, client rulers, answerable to the crown. They struggled to make their land profitable. Some such as the Duke of Sutherland evicted thousands of families, burning their cottages in order to establish large sheep farms or shooting estates.

Donald McLeod, as Sutherland stonemason, wrote about the events he witnessed:

The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and helpless before the fire should reach them; next struggling to save the most valuable of their effects.The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and the fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description – it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day and even extended far out to sea. At night an awful scene presented itself – all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once.

Evicted tenants were resettled in coastal crofts (small tenant farms) where they kept a few cattle, tried to grow crops on impoverished land, fished and gathered and burnt kelp for potash and soda ash, which was used for glass making, soap and fertilisers. But rents were high, there was no security of tenure and access to land was limited. People were dependent on their landlords for their survival. Some people resisted eviction; there were riots. On Skye, the population of one village burned the bailiffs’ papers and sent the back home naked, but a few days later, they returned fully clothed and with soldiers. Others threatened to emigrate and reconstitute their societies in Canada, but the landlords needed to retain the croft industries. The Island of Harris was effectively divided in two. The open grassland to the west was used for sheep farming while the crofters were huddled into the poor rocky and boggy land to the east of the island. Despite the privations, the system worked and the population of the Highlands and Islands continued to increase into the early nineteenth century.

During the Napoleonic war, young men were recruited from the clans in return for land. It was said that the war had harvested sons. Prices escalated during wartime. Many landlords were already in debt, because they wanted to mimic the lifestyle of the lowland landlords.  Increases in the price of fish and kelp from the croft industries protected them from bankruptcy for a few years, but as markets expanded after the war, cheaper sources of potash became available and cattle and fish prices fell. Crofting was no longer profitable. The final straw was the failure of the potato crop due to blight. This led to widespread starvation and with it disease.  People left Crackaig after an epidemic of typhoid, during which many died.

This second wave of highland clearances, like the first, was not a case of abandonment by foreign landlords, as it was in Ireland.  The landowners were of their own stock. Many of them tried to protect their tenants from the worst ravages of the potato blight, but since the famine continued for several years longer than it did in Ireland, it became more profitable and humane to pay for their tenants to be transported.

The chief of the McLean clan found it necessary to lease the Island of Rum to a single sheep farmer and move the whole population to Cape Breton. Late spring in North Uist became known as the transportation season because that was when the boats arrived to collect emigrants for their passage to Canada. But not all the tenant crofters were forcibly transported against their will; the majority of people left because of their impoverished circumstances at home and the lure of an affluent new life in the colonies, symbolised by abundant land and the discovery of gold. Some, taking up their cross of presbyterian guilt, even felt they had deserved the hardship and privation, they had endured, because of their sins, and felt ‘called’ to begin again abroad.

A third of the population of the highlands left between 1841 to 1861. It was not until the Crofters’ War in the 1880s and the deliberations of The Napier Commission in 1886 that those, who had remained, were allowed to own their own crofts and even have the vote, but the land was barely sufficient to make a living. The economic depression of the late nineteenth century caused more people to leave. The price of wool continued to decline. More land was given over to shooting estates, which cost less to maintain and attracted tourists from the south.

These days, the biggest source of revenue in The Highlands and Islands is tourism. The area is one vast theme park. Sheep capitalism has become the leisure industry. Following on from Sir Walter Scott and the endorsement of Queen Victoria and the British Royal Family, the highlander has become a romantic figure. The tartan, the bagpipes, haggis and all things Scottish have been reinvented. The highland diaspora of the 18th and 19th centuries has meant that most people of highland descent prosper in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where many still retain highland traditions.

Notwithstanding the romance o the highlands,  the Highland Clearances continue to represent a deep sense of betrayal in Scotland.  According to popular myth, the government in the shape of their landlords or chieftains had demanded the highlanders’ loyalty, their livelihood and even their sons in return to small piece of land to live on, only to deprive them of their birthright and exile them to another country.  The  ‘Clearances’ became more significant as a symbol in the 1960s and 70s with the rise of Scottish nationalism. ‘The highlander became the political conscience of all Scots’.

This post was inspired by our recent holiday at Treshnish on the Island of Mull, during which visits to Ulva and the ruins of Crackaig made me want to find out what happened.

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George Blake was perhaps the most successful double agent at the time of The Cold War. Working at the centre of British intelligence, for years he sent invaluable information to the KGB, in particular details of the tunnel the Americans constructed to tap into the Soviet communications across Berlin and the names of over a hundred British agents working there at the time. Blake was captured, escaped and survived and is still living in relative luxury in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, but he misses the sun.

So what made George Blake a spy? Was it that he never felt he belonged anywhere? Blake wasn’t even his name. It was Behar, but he was named George after the English King, George V.  His father, Albert, had a small company in Holland making heavy duty gloves for dockworkers, but George wasn’t close to his father; they didn’t even speak the same language. George was brought up speaking Dutch; his father spoke English and French. He was also half Jewish; his paternal grandfather had been a carpet dealer in Istanbul, but the family kept that a secret. George was much closer to his mother, who was very religious; he wanted to be a pastor.  George always had a strong social conscience.

While George was still at school, Albert’s company failed and then shortly afterwards Albert died. His mother struggled to keep the family in their house by the canal, but his father’s sister had married a rich French merchant and George, his two sisters and their mothers were invited to live with them in their mansion in Cairo. It was there that he completed his education and met his playboy cousin, Henri Curiel, who was the joint leader of the Communist party in Cairo. Curiel was later assassinated in Paris.

He was back at school and staying with his grandmother in Rotterdam when the Nazi’s invaded. He remembered the bombers coming over. His mother was desperate to contact him, but escaped with his two sisters on the last boat to England, the same boat that took the Dutch Royal Family into exile. He came home to find nobody in their apartment and the breakfast things still on the table. He stayed on in Holland for a while, running messages for the Dutch resistance. He enjoyed the excitement of living on the edge. In 1942, he managed to escape through occupied France to Spain and hop on a boat to join his family in England.

In London he grew a beard and was recruited into the Special Intelligence Service. They were impressed by his resourcefulness and need to make a difference. He claimed that he was dropped by parachute in Holland as part of the liberating force, but there was no evidence that was correct. George could be a bit of a fantasist, a Walter Mitty character. So it seemed that George possessed all the credentials to be a double agent: strong social and political convictions but no strong allegiance to any country or any religion, somewhat guarded and secretive, no strong emotional ties, resourceful and independent. He told people he wanted to make a difference in the world.

When war erupted in Korea, he was sent to Seoul and was instructed to go north to Vladivostok and recruit Russian agents who would work for the British. He was in Seoul when communist troops invaded and was imprisoned with other members of western legations. It was while he was a prisoner in Korea that he witnessed the American bombing of Korean villages and decided that he was on the wrong side. Together with the other prisoners, he was escorted on the long march through the mountains to the north. He seized the opportunity to escape but was recaptured. It is probable that he made contact with officers from the KGB at around that time and was recruited as a communist agent.

After 2 years in prison in Korea, Blake was released and sent back to England as a hero, seemingly none the worse for his experience. Impressed by his work in the Far East, he joined MI6. One of his first tasks was to take the minutes for the meeting setting out plans to build a tunnel to tap into the Soviet secret communications channel across Berlin. He printed the document out and handed it to his minder on the top deck of a London bus. The Russians did not react; keeping the identity of such a valuable double agent was too important to them.  So they kept their communications open and allowed Blake, now in Berlin, to continue sending his reports on to Britain in return for information from him. He handed over the names of at least a hundred British agents and much more strategic information over the course of the next few years. It was while George was on his next assignment in Lebanon that MI6 grew suspicious of his role in betraying the existence of their tunnel.

Brought back to England for interrogation, he admitted to spying for the KGB and was sentenced to a very harsh 42 years of imprisonment on various counts of treason.  While serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, he was a model prisoner and was allowed certain privileges, such as access to the library. It was there he met the Irishman, Sean Bourke, who was doing five years for being connected with a bomb incident. Bourke was impressed by Blake’s courage and convictions and decided to help him escape using a hacksaw and a crude rope ladder and the assistance of some local helpers from the CND. Blake injured himself falling from the wall, but was whisked away to a safe house, where he was patched up by a doctor, the girl friend of one of the conspirators. It was touch and go; there was a massive search for him. He was nearly discovered when the wife of the owner of the apartment told her therapist that she had a spy in her flat. The therapist, however, thought she was delusional and ignored it. Hiding under the seat of a camper van, Blake escaped through Europe and was deposited at the Russian border, where he walked to the guard house and asked to speak to a member of the KGB.

Later in Moscow, he invited Bourke to join him for a holiday in his luxurious, KGB apartment in the centre of the city, no doubt wishing to recruit him. Once there, Bourke found he was trapped. He stayed for a year and a half but was eventually allowed to return to Ireland. The British Government applied for extradition, but the Irish government refused. So Bourke stayed in Dublin and, in between drinking sprees, was able to complete and publish his book, ‘Springing George Blake ‘. He died in 1982, his life cut short by alcoholism.

Simon Gray’s play, ‘Cell Mates’, covers the time from when Blake and Bourke met in the library of Wormwood Scrubs to when Bourke was allowed to return to Ireland. It covers the trajectory of their relationship from Bourke’s idealisation of Blake in the beginning to his disillusion, a course accompanied by his increasing alcoholism. ‘Cell Mates’ is a play about trust and duplicity that questions what drove Blake to be a spy.

There is something detached, almost autistic, about George Blake. He never acknowledged that he did anything wrong. He was convinced that Russian communism was the practical means whereby the Kingdom of God would be built on earth. He regarded Russia as his spiritual home. More committed to ‘the cause’ than people and a narcissistic desire to make a difference, Blake advised his wife, who had also worked for MI6 and by whom he had three children, to divorce him.

Blake still lives in the leafy outskirts of Moscow in the green-painted, wooden dacha, donated to him by a grateful state. He is 95 and seemingly in good health. In 2007, he was awarded another medal by Vladamir Putin for his services to Russia. He has married again and has another son. His second wife still looks after him. Blake has no regrets over what he did. He had no particular loyalty to Britain, but he is disappointed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and does not like Putin, though he keeps that a secret from the Russians.

Simon Gray’s play is as enigmatic as the spy, himself. We don’t really get any insights about the relationship between Bourke and Blake. Were they gay? Probably not; Blake was married twice. Did Blake trick Bourke into staying in Moscow with him, only to arrange for him to leave when he realised how unreliable he was? Was Bourke’s life ever in danger? It seems that Blake was too self centred to feel any lasting attachment to another person and any guilt, but has created a myth that he can live with.

He reminds me of Julian Assange, who continues to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy, protesting his right to do what he did, while the world has largely forgotten about him. A recent report said that the Ecuadorian officials were complaining about his personal hygeine. Wikileaks, it seems, has become Whiffyleaks!

Stephen Fry was originally cast to play Blake and Rik Myall was cast as Bourke when ‘Cell Mates’ first opened in the West End in 1995, but the production had mixed reviews and was panned after Fry dramatically left because of depression. This is the first revival since that disastrous opening. Should they have bothered? Probably not. It seems to me that the back story of George Blake is much more interesting than the play.

Cell Mates played at The Hampstead Theatre until January 20th. It was directed by Edward Hall with Geoffrey Streathfield as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke.The

Darkest HourThe continued vacillation among those who would rule us is so depressing. It feels like a capitulation, a retreat from a position of power and influence to a place of deep insecurity. David Cameron need not have called the referendum. It was more about political survival of the Tory government than what was in the best interests of the country. He was the man in charge and he bottled out. And now Mrs May, our self proclaimed ‘strong and stable’ leader, is being held to ransom by a European Union, who are no doubt fed up with Britain’s prolonged ambivalence over the whole European project. Many on both sides of the political divide complain and threaten to undermine the process. Their hearts may not be in it, but the people have voted. Britain is alone, cast adrift from Europe. So do we wring our hands and go back to Europe cap in hand and plead for a good deal or do we strike out alone and make the best of it?

It is not the first time, our little island has been alone. In May of 1940, Hitler’s panzers had raced through Holland, Belgium and into France. The total British Army, 300,000 men, were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. The House had lost confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had tried to appease the Nazis, and somewhat reluctantly appointed Winston Churchill to lead a coalition government.

Joe Wright’s film, ‘Darkest Hour, covers three weeks during the month of May 1940 from the time Winston Churchill was appointed prime minister to the evacuation from Dunkirk. Much of it was shot in the gothic gloom of The Houses of Parliament or in the underground war rooms in Whitehall. Gary Oldman was a surprising choice to play Churchill. He needed a lot of prosthetic work to transform his face and body. Nevertheless, his manner was convincing, though was Churchill really such a clown? Was he so volatile? Kirsten Scott Thomas, playing Clemmie, was a wonderful foil for his excesses. As she remarked, ‘he is just a man‘.

The action centred around the arguments within the War Cabinet.   Lord Halifax favoured contacting the Italians to broker a negotiation with Hitler. Churchill was having none of it: ‘You do not negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its jaws!‘. But he felt worn down by the reality of the situation and the sheer burden of responsibility. The most moving part of the film, totally fictitious and heavily criticised, was when Churchill hopped out of his car and took the tube for the last bit of his journey to Westminster. He got into conversation with the people in his carriage and asked them what they thought of the idea of negotiating with Hitler. They had no doubt. ‘Never‘, they all cried. Churchill then quickly drafted his famous speech to parliament and delivered it to resounding acclaim. ‘We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Within the next few days, the British Army was evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. And a few months later, the RAF delivered their own riposte to Hitler’s invasion plans. ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few‘. Such stirring stuff. I was born in 1945, just after the war. My father had served in the RAF. It was in my DNA.

Churchill’s genius was the way in which he sent words into battle to inspire a nation. Politicians since then have aspired to do the same thing, but, with few exceptions, they have lacked courage and conviction. And so, we have arrived at our current depressing state. For a current generation, ‘now’ might be seen as their darkest hour. Only this time, the threat has been self inflicted and there seems no plan and little sign of redemption

It was 1789. France was still a feudal monarchy.  All the power and the wealth was in the hands of the aristocracy,  the King was like a God.  His ancestor, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had built himself a wonderful palace in Versailles.  The people had no voice. All the power was in the hands of the aristocrats and the church.  The country was run by the wealthy; the Estates General.   

But there were stirrings; people were restless, the intellectuals and lawyers met in the cafes and talked of revolution.  he American War of Independence had shown them that it was possible for a people to rise up against their European masters and succeed.   It just needed the spark.  A volcano erupts in Iceland,  the climate cools, the wheat crop fails and Paris explodes.  Starvation on top of everything else; it was too much.   

From its instigation in 1789, events gathered momentum like red hot lava.  The Estates General  was abolished and replaced by a more representative National Assembly, but the members were locked out of their meeting house.  The mob stormed the Bastille, the peasants refused to work on the estates, the monasteries were suppressed, wars of conquest were renounced,  the nobility was abolished.  The Government  changed every few months.  The National Assembly was replaced by an inexperienced Legislative Assemply.  This in turn was dissolved to be replaced by a revolutionary commune, which appointed its own tribunal. The King was forced to abdicated and was then  beheaded.  The country disintegrated into chaos, a  reign of terror.  Nobody was safe.  Anybody who looked rich or who has intellectual pretensions was executed.  Even the architects of the revolution, Marat, Danton and the incorruptible Robespierre were despatched by the guillotine.

The French Revolution terrifies me.  How is it possible to live through such anarchy with any sense of integrity and humanity?  .How could a civilised country disintegrate into such chaos?  Could the mob be released here?  Have you ever stood in the Kop?   

So could it happen again?  Could it happen here?  Now?   Yes, if things got bad enough.  George Osborne is swinging his machete with reactionary zeal.  His cuts are going deeper and more quickly than most of us anticipated.  His assertion that people are making a life style choice in claiming benefits is so provocative.  It surely emanates from someone out of touch with real world of the electorate. It will anger many and may well provoke violence.    

I suspect we are in for a very difficult winter and I am not sure the government will survive it. ‘This is no time for novices’, Gordon Brown said.  It is beginning to look like he was right.  Osborne seems carried away by enthusiasm, intoxicated by a delusion of self importance. Is there nobody who can express a note of caution?  Does the government know something that we don’t?  They need to come clean, to demonstrate in terms that are clear to all, the depth of our plight, to offer leadership and guidance as to how to survive it.  Otherwise people will just view the cuts as the desperate acts of an incompetent and insecure government.  They will take to the streets; the mob whipped up by the media, will be released.  It could happen!  The firemen and postal workers are already threatening strikes.  The TUC has urged civil disobedience.   And against the background, the government is also planning cuts in the military and the police.   

My fears were inspired by the performance of Danton’s Death at the National; such is the role of theatre.  Toby Stephens and Eliot Levey were so powerful,  the set so  dramatic, the direction by Michael Grandage so terrifying. Do not see it if you are a nervous disposition.  Just collect any bits of wood, boxes, broken down cars, anything and start building.    

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